Steph Cha is many things: lawyer, lover of Basset hounds, author of more than 2,000 Yelp reviews and the creator of the Juniper Song series of detective novels.
Much like her fictional forebear, Philip Marlowe, Song drinks heavily, smokes like a chimney and calls Los Angeles home. Unlike Raymond Chandler's famous private investigator, Song is young, female and Korean-American. In other words, she's not like Marlowe at all.
In Beware Beware, the second installment in the mystery series, Song is hired by New York artist Daphne Freamon to keep tabs on her boyfriend, Jamie Landon. Jamie, Daphne explains, hasn't been returning her calls, and she's concerned because he's dabbled with drugs in the past. After securing a ghostwriting gig with aging mega-star Joe Tilley, Jamie's become one of the actor's closest associates. Jamie says they're working on another project, but Daphne suspects they're partying together.
Song spends a few mostly uneventful days tailing her new client. She logs more time on her laptop than she does behind the wheel and discovers interesting things about the man she's following around town and on the Internet. Song quickly reaches the conclusion that she's more than a little envious of Jamie: His good looks, numerous friends and apparent ease in social situations stand in stark contrast to Song's solitary life in a two-bedroom apartment she shares with her young cousin Lori, who, unlike Song, has a boyfriend with whom she spends most of her free time. Alone, Song drinks and broods.
"I liked to think of myself as an honest person, someone who valued truth above comfort, sometimes even above kindness. It was one of the virtues I allowed myself to admit, that gave me a measure of pride. I'd lost friends and family over festering lies, amputated them like a sinner set on heaven. It might have been the impulse that led me to private detection in the first place—the Marlowe drive, the itchy longing to uncover ugly soil, to dislodge the bad fruit that rooted below."
In other words, Song's code of honor is also the source of her discontent. It's the Marlowe drive, however, that leads Song to the hotel suite where, after a night of binging on booze and blow, Tilley is found dead in a bathtub filled with his own blood, and Jamie is the prime suspect.
The first third of Beware Beware follows Song as she tries to uncover the truth behind Tilley's murder. Song interviews a slew of people who are so eager to talk to her and insert themselves in the murder scandal that Song seems more like a TMZ reporter than a gumshoe. But toward the middle of the book, the story takes some unpredictable twists and turns. No one is quite the way they seem, danger lurks everywhere and even Lori and her boyfriend are in peril.
One of the things I like most about Cha's handling of Song is that unlike Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade or Mike Hammer, Song isn't accustomed to dealing with death. She's not used to people turning up dead every few chapters like her counterparts in crime novels. In fact, she hasn't sufficiently recovered from the trauma that unfolded in the previous novel, Follow Her Home, which casts a long shadow over Beware Beware . After she witnesses a cold-blooded murder, she doesn't know how to deal with it.
"I stumbled into the apartment in a haze of fear and trauma. It was a relief to be home, out of the direct company of a murderer, but the immediate release uncorked my bottled up panic, and I felt anything but safe."
Song lacks the panache of a Marlowe or Spade, and that makes her vulnerable. Perhaps "lack" isn't the right word. The absence of a tough-talking exterior doesn't make Song less of a detective; it makes her real. But this vulnerability comes at great cost. The stakes keep getting higher and higher, and the ending left me emotionally flattened in a way I didn't see coming. I never felt that way after reading a Raymond Chandler novel.
Cha is currently working on a third Juniper Song novel, and I hope her heroine is able to protect herself from the crimes of the past and the horrors to come without becoming too hardboiled. In the field of detective fiction, there are many Marlowes, but there is only one Juniper Song.